Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

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The academic study of religion has emerged as a vibrant discipline in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Although the discipline was heavily influenced by developments in western Europe and North America, it had gained a distinctive identity by the 1980s. The region made significant contributions to the overall character of religious studies, particularly in the area of method and theory in the study of indigenous religions. Scholars in sub-Saharan Africa interacted with the dominant questions that have shaped the field. Operating in a context characterized by a plurality of religions, they offered valuable reflections on the character of religion. Some scholars from outside the African context also settled in the region and used the richness of the material on religion to explicate the significance of the complex phenomenon. Notable local and regional traditions of the study of religion were established in sub-Saharan Africa by the late 1990s. Although significant differences could be identified in the execution of the task in this vast region, the emphasis on the importance of religion to Africans was a salient point uniting scholarly reflections. Most scholars in the academic study of religion devoted their resources to an analysis of the three dominant religious traditions. Studies on African traditions, Christianity, and Islam constituted the bulk of the material on religious studies in sub-Saharan Africa. Abstract methodological reflections were limited, perhaps reflecting the abundance of the data on religion.

Many scholars in the study of religion argued that religion was a critical variable in efforts to understand the lives of most Africans. The academic study of religion was predicated on the assumption that religion was central to most endeavors to establish the meaning of existence in an African context. In this pursuit, multiple methodological strategies were employed. Sociological, psychological, anthropological, and phenomenological approaches were used to locate the significance of religion to Africans. African scholars provided impressive descriptions of the major religions, alongside other migrant religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and others. In their edited volume The Historical Study of African Religion, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa (1972), Terence O. Ranger and Isaria N. Kimambo bemoaned the lack of historical sensitivity in the study of indigenous religions. However, this criticism was taken seriously and African scholars produced many impressive monographs on the history of the various religions of Africa by the late 1970s. Although this review concentrates on the efforts of scholars based in departments of religious studies, it is important to acknowledge that creative writers, political scientists, and scholars based in other departments made valuable contributions to the study of religion in Africa.

The Emergence of Religious Studies in Sub-Saharan Africa

While the academic study of religion became an established academic discipline in many African universities by the latter half of the twentieth century, various categories of writers had provided useful information on the religions of Africa much earlier. Travelers, missionaries, amateur ethnologists, and other nonspecialists had written reports on various aspects of religion in Africa in the nineteenth century. Although indigenous religions suffered at the hands of casual observers, the earlier writers preserved valuable information. Missionaries like Henri A. Junod (18631934), who operated in Mozambique from 1907 onward, provided sound descriptions of local religious beliefs and practices. Earlier, John William Colenso (18141883), who was ordained as the bishop of Natal in 1853, had identified Zulu names for god in the context of a general theory of comparative religion. By the time the discipline found its way to African shores, the reality of religious pluralism had anticipated it.

The academic study of religion in sub-Saharan Africa is inextricably intertwined with the political history of the region. The experience of colonialism, from around 1880 to 1960, shaped traditions of the study of religion for most African nations. Former British colonies tended to have lively departments of religious studies because religious education was popular in secondary schools, whereas in Francophone countries such traditions were suppressed. Similarly, religious studies departments did not emerge in former Portuguese colonies like Angola and Mozambique. Zambia provided a unique case of a former British colony that did not develop a department of religious studies, although the faculty of education at the University of Zambia at Lusaka offered courses on aspects of the discipline.

Historical experiences like the struggles for political independence and assertions of nationhood in the postcolonial period are indelibly printed on the study of religion in the region. After the realization of the importance of education for Africans by both missionaries and the colonial state, colleges and universities were gradually established. Most of the universities were instituted after World War II, although Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1827. In Kampala, Uganda, Makerere University, later to be influential in the study of indigenous religions, started off as a technical college in 1922. Although initially university colleges in African countries were affiliated to universities in metropolitan centers, the decolonization process in the 1960s led to the emergence of national universities in independent countries. Such universities promoted the study of religion for ideological purposes.

It is worthwhile to observe that some departments of religious studies were established in West Africa before any such departments existed in Britain. Scholars from outside Africa were influential in the setting up of nonconfessional departments of religious studies. Geoffrey Parrinder was instrumental in the creation of the religious studies department at the University College of Ibadan in Nigeria in the late 1940s. Noel King was actively involved in the emergence of the department for the study of religions at the University of Ghana, Legon. Harold Turner and Andrew Walls taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, before the civil war in 1967. They went on to have impressive academic careers in Europe, using their knowledge of the religious situation in Africa.

The dominance of missionaries in the field of education contributed to the greater attention that Christianity enjoyed in the study of religion in sub-Saharan Africa. Many departments concentrated on church history and theology, reflecting their earlier identity as departments of theology. Most scholars were themselves adherents of Christianity or Islam, engendering the committed approach. However, most African countries renamed departments of theology or divinity as departments of religious studies to reflect the pluralist environment that had been established in most countries. They also placed special emphasis on the study of indigenous religions in an effort to develop a distinctive African identity.


The achievements of African scholars in the study of religion may be located in many areas. However, the most notable areas include theoretical reflections on the meaning of religion, critique of the centrality of scripture, and suggesting new approaches to the study of religion. African scholars also put the study of indigenous religions firmly on the agenda of religious studies. African scholars refined the debate on insiders and outsiders in the study of religion by insisting that they were better placed to understand traditional religions, as opposed to European scholars. In the 1960s and 1970s, African scholars like John S. Mbiti, E. B. Idowu, Kwesi Dickson, and others published significant works on various aspects of indigenous religions. Other West and East African scholars maintained that African scholars were strategically located to provide objective descriptions of the religions of their own people.

African scholars questioned the definition of religion as the opposition between the sacred and the profane. In his African Religions and Philosophy (1969), Mbiti remarks that such a distinction did not apply to traditional African contexts, where religion permeated all spheres of life. This initiated debate over whether the Western definition of religion satisfied the criterion of cross-cultural applicability.

Religious studies in the West have tended to emphasize scripture in the world's religions. Frederick Maximilian Muller (18231900) initiated the interest in scripture with The Sacred Books of the East (18791910). African scholars drew attention to the absence of sacred writings in indigenous religions, noting that these religions remained vibrant nonetheless. Thus, the presence of scripture did not accord a religion any special status, African scholars maintained. This led to some relativization of the significance of scripture in the discipline.

African scholars also highlighted the importance of oral traditions to the study of religion. While textual analysis had featured prominently in religious studies in the West, no such texts existed in most parts of Africa. The historical study of indigenous religions had to grapple with the issue of oral sources. Fieldwork became a critical aspect of religious studies in Africa. Other researchers into African Independent Churches, such as Marthinus Daneel and Gerardus Oosthuizen, also used this approach. Some African scholars who participated in indigenous religious practices, such as the traditional healer and anthropologist Gordon Chavunduka of Zimbabwe and Wande Abimbola, an Ifa priest and Nigerian scholar, also drew attention to the body of knowledge that was found in indigenous religions. They called for alternative approaches that were not dependent on Western models of scientific rationality.

In their descriptions of the various religions of Africa, scholars in Africa have also sought to discern the meaning of religion. In his Religion and Ultimate Well-Being: An Explanatory Theory (1984), the South African scholar Martin Prozesky concludes that the search for ultimate well-being was the driving force behind religion. Laurenti Magesa (1997) also argues that indigenous religions were inspired by the search for abundant life. Detailed descriptions of the religions of Africa and methodological reflections were part of the African contribution.

Major Challenges

The religious commitment of most African scholars resulted in theological works that sought to promote Christianity or Islam. African phenomenological scholars like Jacob Olupona and Friday Mbon of Nigeria and J. S. Kruger of South Africa protested against the encroachment of theology in the 1980s. Earlier, Okot p'Bitek had criticized the application of Christian concepts in African Religions in Western Scholarship (1971). The hegemony of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Islamic theology remained intact. Subservience to Western methodologies and research interests by some African scholars also stifled creativity.

The shortage of books and journals threatened the viability of religious studies in the region. Many departments operated with ill-equipped libraries. Significant journals like the Journal of Religion in Africa were inaccessible to most students and lecturers. Most established scholars relocated to Western countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in search of better career opportunities. Poor remuneration and oppressive regimes contributed to such developments. The worst affected countries included Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and otherscountries that had developed impressive traditions in the academic study of religion. However, institutions in some countries, such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, managed to retain their staff. In most parts of the continent, departments of religious studies have struggled to justify their relevance amid incessant calls by governments to reduce costs. Between 2003 and 2004, South African departments of religious studies were forced to merge.

Gender imbalances have also been noticeable in the discipline in the region. Few female scholars have participated, with Christian theologians dominating. Mercy Amba Oduyoye of Ghana, Isabel Phiri of Malawi and South Africa, and Musa Dube of Botswana analyzed the religious experiences of African women in the late 1990s. The shortage of scholarships in religious studies, as opposed to theology, resulted in the low numbers of African female scholars of religion.

Institutionalization of the Academic Study of Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

The study of religion took place at various levels of educational achievement during different historical periods. Arabic schools, bible colleges, and primary and secondary schools offered subjects that provided some knowledge about the religious context. Teacher training institutions introduced students to the various religions of the world by emphasizing the divergent approach, which does not seek to convert students to a specific religion. In some countries, such as Zimbabwe, the diploma in religious studies has offered graduates a number of career opportunities in the civil service and the private sector. The effects of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and beyond has led some nongovernmental organizations to recruit graduates trained in the study of religion.

Aspects of the academic study of religion were also found in some church-sponsored universities and theological colleges in the 1980s. Although Christianity received preferential treatment, comparative religion was an integral part of the curriculum. In southern Africa some theological colleges sought to establish associate status with national universities in an effort to maintain high academic standards. Courses on the history of religions exposed students to religious pluralism. Although the popularity of the discipline varied among the different countries, it continued to attract significant numbers of students.

Scholarly Organizations and Publications

The high number of lecturers in the discipline facilitated the emergence of scholarly organizations. These included the Nigerian Association for the Study of Religions, founded in 1976; the Association for the Study of Religions in Southern Africa, initiated in 1979; and the African Association for the Study of Religions (AASR), formed in 1992. The AASR has regional chapters and publishes a newsletter that keeps African scholars abreast of developments in the field. It has also sponsored a few monographs and books that are widely distributed in Africa. Other theologically oriented organizations like the Association of Theological Institutions in Southern Africa and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians have contributed to the publication of some valuable monographs on Christianity and indigenous religions. These regional groupings have facilitated interaction across national boundaries and rescued the study of religion from narrow nationalistic agendas.

Despite the shortage of books, some impressive initiatives have been witnessed on the publication front. Following the demise of apartheid in South Africa, a number of texts that sought to describe religious pluralism in the country were published, such as Martin Prozesky and John W. de Gruchy's edited volume Living Faiths in South Africa (1995). Launched in the 1990s in Malawi, the Kachere book series sought to capture the religious scene in the country, covering aspects of Christianity, indigenous religions, and other themes. In Kenya, Acton Publishers, an initiative by the scholar Jesse N. K. Mugambi, was launched in 1992. Mambo Press of Zimbabwe publishes books on religion in the region. Scholars like James Amanze of the University of Botswana, Peter Kasenene in Swaziland and Uganda, and Patrick Maxwell in South Africa produce material within the discipline of religious studies. Monographs and articles on Islam, indigenous religions and churches, new religious movements, and other aspects of religion in Africa are also being produced.

Among African countries in the 1990s, South Africa had the highest number of journals that appeared consistently. These include the Journal for the Study of Religion, Missionalia, Religion and Theology, Scriptura, and others. Although some of the journals have a theological slant, they publish useful articles on the academic study of religion. In Nigeria, the journal Orita has defied the odds and continues to publish articles on the three dominant religions.


Although some scholars, such as Donald Wiebe in The Politics of Studying Religion (1998), have insisted on a rigid separation between the discipline and communities of faith in the region, close cooperation has existed since the 1960s. Organized religious groups have used scholarly services, with scholars responding to the felt needs of the communities among whom they operated. They have also published on those issues that were relevant to their contexts. Religious violence in Nigeria precipitated research into the role of religion in curbing extremism. The reality of HIV/AIDS in the region in the 1990s prompted research into the appropriation of religion in the struggle against the pandemic. In their pursuit of contextual relevance, most African scholars have remained in dialogue with scholars from other parts of the world through publications, conference attendance, and other modern communication facilities.

Despite major challenges, the academic study of religion in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa continue to be encouraging. In their investigations into the religions of Africa and methodological reflections, African scholars provide alternative interpretations regarding the nature and purpose of religious studies. Although they can be abrasive in the study of indigenous religions and militant in protesting against their peripheral position in global religious studies, they are contributing to the shape of the field. Their commitment to producing works of high quality in contexts characterized by resource deficiencies provides indications that a new era of promise is dawning on the academic study of religion. Often marginalized and portrayed as uncritical consumers of methodological tenets developed elsewhere, scholars in sub-Saharan Africa are taking up the challenge of interpreting the significance of religion as full members of the guild.


Amanze, James. African Traditional Religion in Malawi: The Case of the Bimbi Cult. Blantyre, 2002. Describes the vibrancy of a specific African indigenous religion.

Chidester, David. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Charlottesville, Va., 1996. This study highlights the power imbalances between indigenous African people and Europeans, as well as the contestation regarding the concept of "religion."

Hackett, Rosalind I. J. "The Academic Study of Religion in Nigeria." Religion 18 (1988): 3746. Describes the development of religious studies in Nigeria.

Kasenene, Peter. Religion in Swaziland. Braamfontein, 1990. A description of the religious situation in Swaziland.

Magesa, Laurenti. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. New York, 1997. An analysis of the centrality of morality to the indigenous religions of Africa and how they seek to promote well-being.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. London, 1969. A useful text that highlights efforts to bring some sense of unity to the disparate indigenous religions of Africa.

Muller, Frederick Maximilian. The Sacred Books of the East. Oxford, 18791910. Provides insights into the centrality of scripture in the academic study of religion in the West.

p'Bitek, Okot. African Religions in Western Scholarship. Kampala, 1971. This work captures the insistence by African scholars that they are best placed to study the indigenous religions of Africa.

Platoon, Jan, James Cox, and Jacob Olupona, eds. The Study of Religions in Africa: Past, Present, and Prospects. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. A comprehensive analysis of the study of the various religions of Africa, including reflections on metho-dology.

Prozesky, Martin. Religion and Ultimate Well-Being: An Explanatory Theory. London, 1984. An effort to locate the central theme that runs across religious traditions of the world.

Prozesky, Martin, and John W. de Gruchy, eds. Living Faiths in South Africa. New York, 1995. A description of the religions of South Africa in their plurality.

Pye, Michael, ed. Marburg Revisited: Institutions and Strategies in the Study of Religion. Marburg, Germany, 1989. See contributions by Peter McKenzie, "The History of Religions in Africa," pp. 99105, and Jan Platvoet, "The Institutional Environment of the Study of Religion in Africa South of the Sahara," pp. 107126.

Ranger, Terence O., and Isaria N. Kimambo. The Historical Study of African Religion, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa. London, 1972. Highlights the value of historical research to the study of African indigenous religions.

Ter Haar, Gerrie. Faith of Our Fathers: Studies in Religious Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Utrecht, 1990. Outlines developments within the study of religions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Uka, E. M. Readings in African Traditional Religion: Structure, Meaning, Relevance, Future. Bern, 1991. Provides useful discussions of some of the key methodological issues in the study of African indigenous religions.

Wiebe, Donald. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York, 1998. Captures the argument that theology should not be allowed to infect religious studies.

Ezra Chitando (2005)

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Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

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